The Relatives Bring the Gospel to the Masses
The No Walls Ministry sits on the back side of a long strip mall in South Dallas, the hum of the overpass competing with the streetlight buzz peppering the massive gray parking lot. No Walls' windows are decorated with signs that read "Jesus Paid It All" and "God Loves You." Next door sits Charisma Bundle of Joy Childcare, the bars on the windows betraying the name and primary color scheme.
Inside, Relatives vocalist the Reverend Gean West, his younger brother and co-vocalist Tommy West, drummer Earnest Tarkington, bassist Dale Burns and guitarist Jimmy Hall run through some song parts. The church stage is decorated with vases of fake flowers, and paintings of women in Sunday crowns adorn a wall to the left. A fish tank gurgles softly on the back wall, filling gaps when the Relatives are talking through a chord or verse. Behind the stage is a framed poster that relates, "Relax. God Is In Control."
Sitting in the church where Tommy preaches — and many of the Relatives preach or are involved in church in some way — I'm reminded of the summer of 2010, the last time I interviewed the Dallas gospel group. I sat in this very same row of pews on a Sunday, and watched him pray, sing and testify. This I remember well: Everyone who testified that day, regardless of ailment or affliction, was thankful for being there right that moment.
Last summer, Tommy had surgery to remove his prostate, due to a bout with cancer. He's in the clear now, but it slowed down the pace of the Relatives' tour schedule, which has shuttled them to Australia, France and New Orleans. Seeing him on stage this Monday night, he's energized, dancing, feeling the spirit that's unified the group for the past 30 years. Before they started rehearsal, a friend asked for prayers for an ailing loved one. Tommy, Gean and his son Cedric West all joined hands as Gean offered words. After a few minutes, they get right into jamming "Let Your Light Shine," Cedric's mid-range vocals blending perfectly with Tommy's low end and third vocalist Tyron Edwards' falsetto.
Gean carefully listens and assesses what the song needs or doesn't need. Dates and names aren't his strong suit at 75 years old, but his musical mind is still sharp. He keeps everyone in line and has been preaching in churches since the late 1950s, so that dedication to guiding and inspiring crosses over to the music.
Still, the Relatives aren't that well-known in the city they preach in. Gean and Tommy had kicked around in other Southern gospel and R&B groups in the '60s, playing nightclubs and touring, but 1971 saw them, along with Tarkington, original vocalist H.G. Turner, lead guitarist Charles Ray Mitchell, percussionist Ronnie Mitchell and bassist Willie Small, cut their first 45 single on Hosana Records, "Walking On." "Don't Let Me Fall," of which they only pressed about 200 copies, followed as the second single. Tommy left the group in 1975, but they continued for five more years, releasing "This World Is Moving Too Fast" and "Free At Last," produced by renowned Dallas engineer Phil York. They had their '70s run and diverged down different paths.
That version of the Relatives was mainly playing hotel parties, apartment pools, community events and churches, so it makes sense the greater population doesn't know who they are today. A 1974 KXTX clip of them performing "Let's Rap" for a gospel variety show is about the only vintage performance to be found. And while they started as an R&B revue, Gean wanted to keep gospel as their foundation, which obscured them from a bigger audience.
Things are much different in 2012. Amazingly, they've managed to maintain that gospel foundation and pick up a newer, younger generation of fans who are drawn to their soul and funk sound. They found allies in Austin's Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, with whom they performed in 2010 at The Loft, the only other time they've played Dallas since reforming.
"Younger crowd?" Gean says. "Yeah, Tyron been noticing that."
The group breaks into laughter, then into preacher mode.
"We try to have a message in every song," says Tommy.
"Everything we singing about has a message in the world today," Tarkington adds.
"We are our brothers' keeper, and that's what we're trying to relate," Gean continues. "No matter what situation you get in, an almighty power will intervene and extend his hand. We know, even in the clubs, there are good people, and they love the Lord. We're trying to help them know there's a greater power."
For the Relatives, a greater power came in the flesh and blood form of Noel Waggener and Charisse Kelly, who run Austin's Heavy Light Records. The label's made discovering obscure Texas soul, psych and funk its mission, and about 10 years ago, Waggener happened to find one of those rare Relatives 45s of "Don't Let Me Fall" at Antone's Records in Austin. What he heard among the crackles and pops sent him on close to a decade-long search for information on the group, with many dead ends in between.
Fate intervened one day, when Waggener found Gean's name on a fellow Dallas pastor's website. In 2009, he eventually got Gean on the phone, traveled to Dallas, and uncovered a handful of unreleased material. Don't Let Me Fall, 2009's 11-song LP, was Heavy Light's first release, and the first proper full-length for the Relatives, 30 years after forming. Now, Waggener says, they're like extended family.
"They know they have to come back with a bullet," he adds. "Gean was sweating it while [Tommy was ill]. He toured solid through the '50s to the '90s, so he is on top of things like that. He's aware of what it is to be a working band. He sees the big picture. He defers to [me and Charisse] to hip him to what's going on today, but the general framework, he totally gets that. He's the leader of the band. It gives me some insight on how James Brown might have run his band."
That was apparent last month, when the Relatives did a taping for KLRU in the old Austin City Limits studios. The group, dressed in impeccably tailored, matching suits, was at full force. The crowd, a mix of Austin musicians, record collectors and students, gathered at the edge of the stage. During the extended breakdown of "Don't Let Me Fall," Cedric, Tommy, Tyron and Gean all moved right and left in unison, a physical manifestation of their faith — something those outside the church don't often get to see.
The final song was new, and Tommy and Gean apparently wrote it the night of the taping. It certainly had that James Brown feel, and Black Joe Lewis guitarist Zach Ernst, who performed with them that night, should also get a nod for stepping in and refreshing the sound. "Gean's the force that keeps it authentic," Waggener says. "But Zach comes in and makes it more powerful."
Add to that the fact that Spoon's Jim Eno is producing their next album, and the Relatives' second act comes into focus a bit more. You can't help but believe fate is as much a part of their foundation as faith. I ask when they started recording the new songs, and Gean doesn't miss a beat.
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